Without a doubt, one of the most exciting fighters to emerge on the United States MMA scene in 2012 has been Dagestan native and Bellator featherweight Shahbulat Shamhalaev. The M1 veteran has so far progressed through the Season 7 tournament by crushing everyone in his path.
He won his first round matchup with Cody Bollinger by brutal ground-and-pound TKO at 4:49 of the first round. Against semi-final opponent Michael Richman, he delivered a highlight-reel, one-punch KO at just 1:49 of the first frame.
On Friday, Dec. 7, he will meet veteran Rad Martinez in the tournament final. The winner will go on to face Bellator featherweight champion Pat Curran.
I caught up with Shamhalaev earlier this week at the Ultimate Athletic training facility in Ithaca, N.Y., headquarters of his training camp, Team Bombsquad. The interview was conducted with the assistance of Shamhalaev's handheld translator and with the help of his trainer, Ryan Ciotoli.
Dagestan is a republic in the Northern Caucasus region on the Caspian Sea, a member of the former USSR that remains a federal subject of Russia. Bordered by Chechnya to the west, it is a conflict-plagued region and an extremely tough place to grow up in the wake of the Soviet collapse two decades ago.
It is also an absolute hotbed for the combat sports, a tough region that develops tough athletes. "Wrestling is our No. 1 one sport," Shamhalaev told me.
Ciotoli, a two-time NCAA Division III runner up, filled in more details:
I already knew about Dagestan before Sha came to train with us, because of wrestling. When I got the chance to train with the Russian national team in 2003, I found out a lot of their top guys were actually from Dagestan. Even a lot of other countries in Eastern Europe, theyre actually represented by guys from Dagestan who move there to wrestle internationally.
"In the last Olympics, 10 medals in judo and wrestling (were won by) people from Dagestan," Shamhalaev added with pride. "Five gold."
To put this fact into context, consider that Dagestan has a population of about 2.9 million people. So we're talking about a country with a population roughly the same size as Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont combined.
"In M1," Shamhalaev continued, "(There are) six weight classes. Four champions from Dagestan."
"Two of them are from his gym," Ciotoli added.
Still, despite the widespread popularity of combat sports in the former Soviet Republics, earning a living at them remains a formidable challenge.
"The money is horrible. Five hundred to show and five to win," said Ciotoli. "Maybe a thousand and a thousand for a guy at Sha's level."
The low fighter pay is not a result of low ticket prices, though. Shamhalaev showed me a photo of an M1 octagon and pointed to the cage side area. "Tickets here, five thousand dollars. If Putin comes," he added, referring to the Russian President and well known MMA enthusiast, "They cost 10 thousand."
Despite the difficulty in making ends meet as a fighter, Shamhalaev is a testimony to the obvious advantages a young fighter has there when trying to develop a well-rounded MMA game. Says Ciotoli:
His wrestling is very good. He says it's poor, because he is used to training with international level competitors. But he's actually at a good American college level. He's got national qualifier type wrestling.
Still, Shamhalaev came to the United States with a reputation as a kickboxer and his performance so far in the Bellator tournament has done nothing to diminish this.
In his last fight against Richman, he looked absolutely Anderson Silva-esque, luring his opponent in, easily eluding his attacks, and then countering with murderous precision.
I asked Bombsquad Muay Thai trainer Primo Bellarosa, a former National champion with years of international experience, why Shamhalaev is such an effective striker:
He's extremely fast. He's an excellent counter-puncher and you need good speed and eye sight for that. He rarely makes you just miss. He makes you miss and pay for it. It's rarely a break even. Besides that, he's a thinker in the cage. He'll kick low, kick low, then look low and go high. He'll throw a punch just to see what you'll do. He'll study your defensive tendency and then feed it, knowing how you'll react and what he will do to counter.
Obviously nobody is penciling Shamhalaev in for a title fight just yet. He'll have a very tough opponent to get by first, in Rad Martinez.
If Martinez's own road to the finals has been less dominant than Shamhalaev's, he has also demonstrated the kind of grind-it-out tenacity that signals he should never be viewed as an easy out for anybody.
His semi-final win came over BJJ black belt Wagnney Fabiano, the fighter many viewed as the tournament favorite going in.
The former NCAA All-American is a gigantic featherweight with a compelling back story of his own. In June of 2011 he was the subject of an ESPN Outside the Lines documentary profiling his role as a caretaker for his paraplegic father.
This exciting match up will be broadcast live on MTV 2.